Breastfeeding in public debate taken to new heights - Here's what SA domestic airlines say

If you've ever been on a plane with a fussing one-year-old, whether your own offspring or as a fellow passenger  -you might comprehend the anxiety of Shelby Angel in wanting to keep her daughter calm during a recent flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam.

It is a well-known fact that feeding babies, either by breast or bottle, during take-off and landing helps soothe them, as the sucking motion tends to stem the popped sensation in the ears - this is caused by the change in air pressure over the tympanic membrane, which separates the outer ear from the middle ear. Sometimes this can be quite painful for infants.

Which is exactly why Angel tried to feed her daughter, in anticipation of the take-off. However, shortly after boarding her third flight with her "busy toddler", she was approached by a flight attendant carrying a blanket who asked her to cover up. 

Angel says "I do my best to be discreet, but sometimes some skin shows. Before we even took off, I was approached. She told me 'if you want to continue doing the breastfeeding, you need to cover yourself'."

"I told her no, my daughter doesn't like to be covered up. That would upset her almost as much as not breastfeeding her at all. She then warned me that if anyone complained, it would be my issue to deal with (no one complained. On any of the flights I took with my daughter."

But Angel says "no one has ever complained to her about breastfeeding in public", except this flight attendant.

Angel says she was made to feel "extremely uncomfortable and disrespected" throughout the flight. She has since posted about the incident on KLMs Facebook page calling for breastfeeding moms to boycott the airline. The post has seen in excess of 2k comments, with many voicing their support for Angel who was just doing what comes naturally. 

KLM's policy appears to be "inclusive", allowing mothers to breastfeed during flights. But what it does not seem to allow is for the discretion to rest with the mother who aims to do the simple task of keeping the child calm, as well as nourishing the child in the most basic way possible. 

Surely targeting a breastfeeding mother in this way, without any formal complaint from a fellow passenger seems excessive? 

KLM's response to a query about their breastfeeding policy on twitter as a result of Angel's post has since also caused quite a storm, as it appears to side with "offended passengers" instead of considering the comfort of the mother and child concerned. 

Traveller24 put out a similar call to South Africa's domestic carriers to see what their policy on breastfeeding during a flight was - with all carriers answering promptly to share their on board breastfeeding friendly stance. 

@FlyMangoSA @kulula @flysaa @Fly_Airlink confirmed mothers are allowed to breastfeed during a flight.  


While @FlySafair similarly does allow breastfeeding during flights, it says it does not have "any written policy" on the matter.

"However we would expect our passenger to consider their fellow passengers considering the confined space within the cabin".

We wanted to clarity though on how flight attendants would know how to deal with a complaint related to breastfeeding and that passengers were behaving accordingly?

"Our training to crew is to do whatever is in their power to ensure that everyone is comfortable," Kirby Gordon, FlySafair spokesperson further confirmed.

One reader, Gaelyn Cokayne shared with Traveller24 how she has flown on all the SA domestic airlines and breastfed her daughter "without an issue".

"I flew both domestic and internationally on various airlines with my daughter around 15 times while breastfeeding, and never had an issue, complaint or even judging eyes. I was always offered help, and actually encouraged by airline staff to feed on take off and landing.

But did Cokayne have to cover up?

"The 1st time she was 3-weeks-old, I flew on my own to Durban - Jnb on kulula, middle seat between two middle aged businessmen. Both offered to help me out. Quietly averted eyes when I fed her. I didn’t cover up with anything other than my clothes for modesty. Too hot and cramped," says Cokayne. 

Cultural appropriateness

At the end of the day the breastfeeding in public debate weigh cultural appropriateness against the basic need to feed a child and keep them comfortable - this instance it happens to be during a flight. 

As a mother of two boys now well on their way to their tween years, I'd hazard a stance that the latter really shouldn't be up for debate at all.

There can be nothing worse than rubber-necked passengers giving you the evil eye. I've been on the receiving end of this when flying with my eldest son, when he was less two-months old from Cape Town to visit his grandmother who lived in Pretoria at the time. Those without children need to consider that when the child is screaming it is because they have limited sensory perceptions of new experiences like flying, especially the effect of changes in cabin pressure. Added to that they have no other coping mechanism other than to bawl their eyes out.

Not ideal, but it is what it is. 

So unless offended passengers are prepared to eat their chicken or beef underneath a stuffy blanket, let's all just act like decent human beings, look the other way while nature takes its course, and not make too much of a fuss if at all possible.  

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